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Federal Investigators Launch Criminal Probe Into Ferry Crash

Oct 29, 2003 | Xinhuanet

As the victims of the Staten Island ferry crash were remembered at a memorial service, the federal government announced Wednesday that it is conducting a criminal investigation into the incident, which killed 10 people and injured dozens of others.

Prosecutors with the US Attorney's office for the Eastern District of New York are "fulfilling the federal government's responsibility" to protect people on the waterways, said Roslynn Mauskopf, the head of the office.

The federal statute, officials said, deals specifically with maritime incidents, and is better tailored to the type of case than the state statute. The federal negligence law also provides for a maximum penalty of up to 10 years in prison.

Meanwhile, the Staten Island District Attorney's office will convene a grand jury as part of its investigation, spokeswoman Monica Brown said. The office has issued subpoenas for documents in the case, sources said.

If criminal charges are eventually warranted, the Staten Islandprosecutor's office will probably step out of the investigation, but assign a prosecutor to the federal team, officials said.

Captain Michael Gansas and the crew of the crashed ferry will be asked to testify at a congressional hearing next Tuesday at theCollege of Staten Island. Congress can issue subpoenas if the crewmembers choose not to attend, sources said.

Officials believe Assistant Captain Richard Smith was at the controls when the ferry crashed at full speed into a maintenance pier. Initial reports suggested he passed out at the controls as the result of his medication, but sources said the sequence of events remains unclear.

However, two witnesses, a crew member and a man who was on a nearby tugboat are contradicting those accounts, according to the New York Times. The witnesses said that Smith was standing erect at the controls a minute before the crash, while the ferry was traveling at nearly top speed just before docking.

The crew member, who says he was in the Staten Island-bound wheelhouse with Smith just before the incident, says Gansas was not there, according to the Times. The witness on the tugboat saysthat after the crash, he saw Gansas run across the top of the ferry, from the Manhattan-bound wheelhouse to the other wheelhouse.

Despite the distance, investigators were able to conclude that the person seen running between the wheelhouses was Gansas becauseof his distinctive uniform, worn only by captains and assistant captains on Staten Island ferries, the Times said.

Investigators, who have collected many other accounts as well, have not ruled out the possibility that Smith had become incapacitated in some way.

Smith is still hospitalized after a suicide attempt following the incident, and he has not spoken extensively with investigators.Citing trauma from the crash, Gansas has refused to answer a subpoena for an interrogation, and he has been ordered to a federal court next week to explain his lack of cooperation.

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